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Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012: In Memoriam

Today’s news brought the shocking report of Shulamith Firestone’s death, at age 67. The circumstances were disturbing: Firestone died alone in New York, in her East Village apartment, where apparently she had expired some days before. No one had known of her passing; no one had been there to comfort her. Shulamith, or “Shulie,” as everyone called her, had suffered from mental illness—apparently diagnosed as schizophrenia—for many years. After her brief foray in the public spotlight in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she largely withdrew from public life, even from her friends, painting, reading, writing.

But although Shulie was not yet 30 when she turned away from public life, her place in history is assured. No one was more important to the birth and flourishing of early women’s liberation than this singular persona. Firestone was an “unidentified comet,” in writer Susan Brownmiller’s words, a “studious, nearsighted yeshiva girl” who transformed herself into a “fearless dynamo, consumed by a feminist vision."

Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Ottawa, Canada, and raised in Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, Shulie, who had studied at Yavneh of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, then Washington University, was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago, when, barely 22, she came face to face with the winds of change. One event that helped trigger the start of a new women’s movement, distinct from the liberal feminism of the Betty Friedan/NOW kind, occurred during Labor Day weekend at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago in 1967.

At the conference, Shulie and civil rights activist Jo Freeman authored a resolution giving women delegates 50% of the convention votes, to reflect the percentage of women in the general population. Freeman (now using the name Joreen) recalled that although the women delegates waited all day to put their minority report on the floor, the meeting chair refused to recognize them, although he allowed a delegate representing Native Americans to enter a resolution, which the convention duly passed.

“Infuriated, “ Joreen recalls, “we rushed the podium, where the men only laughed at our outrage. When Shulie reached [the chair], he literally patted her on the head. ‘Cool down, little girl,’ he said. ‘We have more important things to do here than talk about women's problems.’ Shulie didn't cool down and neither did I... The other women responded to our rage. We continued to meet almost weekly, for seven months... we talked. And we wrote.”

Following the incident at the National Conference of New Politics, Shulie and Freeman organized Westside, the city’s first women’s liberation group. Firestone and Freeman’s Westside group lasted only through the spring, but by the time it dissolved, consciousness-raising groups had mushroomed in Chicago and across the country. The Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the newsletter of the Westside group, gave the burgeoning movement its name.

In just a few years, Firestone would publish one of radical feminism’s most influential treatises, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), which shocked many in her community, and certainly her observant parents, with its call to free women from the “tyranny of their biology,” allowing childbearing to be replaced by technology and the nuclear family by nontraditional, and in her view, more humane households. The Dialectic of Sex became feminism’s most famous “demon text,” in Ann Snitow’s words—books “demonized, apologized for, endlessly quoted out of context” to prove that radical feminism in the early 70s was “strangely blind”; Snitow explains that it was patriarchy which Firestone wanted to smash, not mothers. In the decades since The Dialectic of Sex, several of Firestone’s suggestions for transforming women’s place in society have come to pass, but at the time, Firestone was considered by many to be an outrageous provocateur, a destroyer of the family.

Firestone, in fact, was a key theorist of the women’s liberation movement, imagining the ways that technology could be a handmaiden for a profound social transformation that would lead to greater gender equality. She was the author as well of several essays—“Women and the Radical Movement,” “The Jeannette Rankin Brigade: Woman Power?”, and “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S. A.: New View,” and the founder and editor of the movement journal, Notes from the First Year (1968) and Notes from the Second Year, and with Anne Koedt, Notes from the Third Year (1971). Notes articulated the ideas that were forming in the radical women’s liberation groups that Shulie helped to organize. After the Chicago group, she co-founded New York Radical Women, the first women’s liberation group in the city, then Redstockings, which she co-founded with Ellen Willis, and finally New York Radical Feminists. Each of these groups was a major source of movement ideas and practices. The several editions of Notes, as well as Shulie’s other writings, were widely influential as well, as the new ideas spread like wildfire around the country.

Shulie believed in the power of consciousness-raising, and she believed in action. In both her words and her own actions, she was a total original. And she was daring. Her courage, in collaboration with other movement activists, ushered in a new way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us, a world which Shulie helped to change in profound ways. As we mourn her loss, and perhaps, the promises unfulfilled in her own life, we need to remember the path-breaking contributions she made to ours.

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11 Comments

I was from the same generation. Hired for cheap labor in a male dominated profession. Thank you for the gracious and factual eulogy of this brilliant scholar and artist.

Thank you for this post, it's the best eulogy for Firestone that I've read yet. You zero in on the important point of The Dialectic of Sex so many others have missed-- that Firestone saw the possibility of technology to free women from the tyranny of biology. I would only add that The Dialectic, which I read in the 70s while in college, made me question everything I was ever taught! It was a critique of everything existing and tremendously stimulating. That book, more than anything else, made me the feminist I am today. I too have held onto my copy through the decades.

In the early 70s childless women were often pitied, almost no one considered the pros and cons of childbearing. Firestone blazed the way. I just read a fascinating statistic in a Washington Post opinion by Jessica Valenti: since 1976 the number of women who are not a parent has doubled! One in 5 women today do not have children. We are making informed choices, we are no longer chained to our biology.

Firestone may be gone physically but she lives on in the world of ideas!

The Dialectic of Sex has been on my bookshelf since 1972, marked up in several different colors and scotch taped to keep it together. It was my feminist mikveh. I loved it for its radical challenge to conventional thinking. Shulamith Firestone became my role model for what I wrote that contributed to feminism. Judith Lorber

Thanks, Joyce, for writing this excellent and deserving tribute to Shulie Firestone. I remember reading and discussing the book with members of my consciousness-raising group. You captured her important contribution to the deeper analysis of patriarchy that was needed then -- and is needed now. best -

janet

I'm also 67. I remember the patronization of women, and applaud the brilliance of Shulie's response. However, it was clearly a first response to an intolerable social order. All movements have their fiery beginnings. It's the fuel that brings about change. Shulie's writing's must be placed in the context of the movement, not as a prescription for social interaction between men and women. I admire her ability to pack a punch. The male dominated world of the mid-twentieth century quickly learned that head patting was dangerous. Given Shulie's facile intelligence and insight, some messages along the way in the way of further writings would have been appreciated.

Shulamit was my age. I'ts the first time I heard about her (but I'll look for her book as soon as possible!).

I feel very sad about the situation of her death.

But I supose she felt lonely most of the time... I'll pray for her soul - may she rest in peace.

When I lived in the USA, I've meet some brave women. I think we make the difference.

Best wishes for the New Year. God bless you all. Iara (Brazil)

Like so many other young women of the early 70's I read avidly Shulamith's work. her work in Redstockings, and Radical Women as well as Notes from the first second and third year were very influential in the early Adelaide Women's Liberation Movement in South Australia. Many of the articles were reprinted and distributed in many different venues and groups. It is to be commended that her memory and works are being recorded. Thank you Shulamith for all your work.

Sylvia Kinder

I read the Dialetic of Sex not long after it was published in my early days of exploring feminism and when I was becoming more analytical in my understandings of feminism and how I could claim it as my own. Although challenged by the book it was also a revelation that a woman could write such a ground breaking seminal text.

At this time I lived in a small remote mining township in Australia where the ratio of women to men was 1:27 so a book like this was important on so many different levels and in particular for the other women I was able to loan it to and then engage in dialogue with. It refreshed many of us who were yearning for change and ways to take on the patriarchy and who felt often that we did not have the language to do so.

The sadness I feel for Shulamith is that she died alone althogh I suspect that she felt separate for much of her life. It takes courage to live with mental illness as it seems to always be there hovering over you so my hope is that she now is free to be a star shining brightly in a galaxy of feminist stars and that she is at peace.

Travel well dear friend.

I found The Dialectic of Sex in a bookstand in a grocery store and frankly, I think I was in Twin Falls, Idaho then. I bought few new books due to finances but I bought that and read it avidly. Shulamoth Firestone made me a feminist. I was never the theorist that a number of my friends are and were. I kept the faith though, as lazy minded as I am occasionally. I was so young then, so very young. I could not envision a time when Firestone would be dead and I would be alive and vigorous. Mental illness. I am sorry. I have seen it eat into the brains of other friends. I have seen them fight for wholeness and fight to keep the vision of the world they know is right. Bless you for your blog entry.

Dear Joyce, I was sad and disturbed since finding out about Shulmaith death. Her book is very important to my collective - Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter and young new women who are joining us are strongly encouraged to read it. May her soul be bound in the bundle of life and may her politics carry on in our feminist lives. Thank you so you for your post. In sisterhood, Hilla

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There will be a memorial for Shulie in late Oct at St Marks Church. Redstockings and her family are running it. Rosalyn Baxandall Rosybax@gmail.com

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How to cite this page

Antler, Joyce. "Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012: In Memoriam." 31 August 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/shulamith-firestone-1945-2012-in-memoriam>.

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